While the Basilica di San Nicola in Bari, Italy is widely accepted to be home to the relics of Saint Nicholas, there are two other cities that allege to possess his grave: Venice, Italy and Newtown Jerpoint, Ireland. This osteological controversy started when the bones of this charitable saint were looted from his tomb in Turkey some time at the end of the 11th century, about 700 years after he died.
Saint Nicholas was born around 270 AD to a wealthy family in the village of Patara in modern Turkey. He became well-known for his philanthropic nature after he gave away his fortune to help the sick and the poor. Nicholas was so famous for his kindness that he eventually became the basis for the Santa Claus legend. He was elected Bishop of Myra, a Roman city in modern day Turkey, despite not being a priest at the time, possibly because his uncle previously held the position.
Nicholas died in 343 AD and his remains were interred at St. Nicholas Church in Myra. Nicholas was recognized as a saint locally, before the Roman Catholic Church had a formalized canonization process. Nicholas’ tomb became a popular pilgrimage site that produced a lot of money for the local economy, especially when monks discovered water in the tomb that could be harvested and sold. The monks claimed that Nicholas’ bones produced a liquid, which they called manna, that had healing powers.
The Bari Claim
In 1087, sailors from Bari, Italy traveled to Myra to visit the Saint Nick’s tomb, not to pray for a miracle, but to steal the relics and bring them home. Some say the Christian sailors stole the skeletal remains to save them from the invading Muslim Seljuk Turks, while others think they were stolen to bring money from the lucrative pilgrimage industry to Bari.
When the bones arrived in Bari in May of 1087, the townspeople vowed to build a basilica to house the relics. Saint Nicholas’ crypt was completed in 1089 and Pope Urban II translated the relics and consecrated the shrine at the Basilica di San Nicola.
The bones continued to secrete the famous manna in the new tomb in Bari. Since 1980, the liquid is harvested from the bottom of the tomb on May 9th, the Feast of the Translation of S. Nicholas from Myra to Bari.
In 1957, Luigi Martino, an anatomy professor at the University of Bari, led a research team charged with examining and documenting St. Nicholas’ bones. The skull was in pretty good condition but the rest of the bones were fragmented and fragile. Martino found that these remains belonged to an elderly man between 72 and 80 years old, which fit Nicholas’ age at death of about 75 years old.
The Venetian Claim
For centuries Venetians claimed that the church of San Nicolò al Lido also possessed the bones of St. Nicholas. They claim that when troops sailed from Venice to fight in the First Crusade in 1099 they stopped off in Myra. During this visit, these sailors visited St. Nicholas Church and robbed the saint’s tomb and stole an urn with an inscription, “Here lies the Great Bishop Nicholas, Glorious on Land and Sea.”
For centuries Bari and Venice had a heated dispute over who really had Nicholas’ bones. So Luigi Martino, the anatomist who examined the bones in Bari in 1957, was allowed to look at the Venetian bones in 1992 to settle the debate. He discovered that the Venetian bones were broken into “as many as 500” pieces and were in the same poor condition as the Bari relics.
Martino determined that the skeletal remains in Bari and Venice are likely from the same man because the pieces of the Venetian bones are fragments of body parts missing from the body interred at Bari. It’s thought that, in 1099, Venetian sailors stole the bone fragments left behind by the Bari sailors in 1087. The Venetian bones, however, reportedly don’t secrete manna.
The Irish Claim
But Irish historians allege that the body of Saint Nicholas is really buried in an abandoned medieval town in Ireland. Central to the Irish claims to St. Nicholas’ grave are the de Frainets, a French family who participated in the Crusades. In one tale, two knights named Den and de Frainet robbed the Nicholas’ relics from the Basilica in Bari on their way home from the Crusades and brought them to Ireland.
In another story, the de Frainets helped to steal Saint Nicholas’ relics from Myra and brought them to Bari, a time when the town was under the control of French Normans. When the Normans were pushed out of Bari, the de Frainets moved to Nice, France and took Saint Nicholas’ remains with them. The relics remained in France until the Normans lost power in the area.
Nicholas de Frainet brought the bones to Newtown Jerpoint, a medieval town where his family owned land. There Nicholas de Frainet built a Cistercian Abbey where St Nicholas’s remains were buried in 1200. Although Newtown Jerpoint is deserted, the abbey is stands.
While this theory seems to be a tactic to draw pilgrims to the area, there is a bit of credibility to the Irish claim. At Jerpoint Abbey there is a grave slab that seems to depict the body of St. Nicholas and carvings of the heads of two Knights, Den and de Frainet, who stole the relics from Bari.
The Turkish government seems to believe the Italian claims to possess the elderly bishop’s bones. Since 2009, the Turkish Ministry of Culture has repeatedly petitioned the Italian government and the Vatican for the return of Saint Nicholas’ bones because they were illegally obtained.